MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo is the Milwaukee Bucks’ best player, but when they really need a bucket they give the ball to Khris Middleton. That was evident in Game 1 against the Miami Heat when Middleton hit a last-second game-winner, and it was evident again on Thursday night in Game 3 versus the Brooklyn Nets, as Middleton came up huge down the stretch to save the Bucks’ season.
Middleton’s 35 points and 15 rebounds were both game-highs and helped Bucks escape with an 86-83 victory in one of the ugliest playoff games in a long time. The crucial win cut the series deficit to 2-1, and the Bucks will now have a chance to tie things up on Sunday in Game 4.
“He made a couple big ones,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Both teams were fighting for every bucket they could get, so Khris was able to put us in a spot where we had a chance to win, and then Jrue with a big basket late. So a couple good plays by both of those guys.”
After a brilliant start, in which Middleton and Giannis each scored 15 points in the first quarter to get the Bucks out to a 30-11 lead, the game turned into a grind. At one point in the fourth quarter, it got so bad that no one scored for over three minutes, and the normal anxiety that hovers in the arena during a big playoff game was ratcheting up with every miss.
With less than three minutes to play, the game was tied 76-76, and it felt perfectly set up for a devastating Kevin Durant run to ruin the Bucks’ night. That surge did come, only it wasn’t quite good enough because Middleton was every bit his equal.
First, a pull-up jumper over Bruce Brown off the pick-and-roll with Giannis to put the Bucks up 78-76. This wasn’t the most important basket of the game, but it was right up there considering the Bucks hadn’t scored in four minutes and 22 seconds.
Next, after Durant had tied it with a bucket of his own, Middleton hit another pull-up jumper over Brown to give the Bucks an 80-78 advantage.
Then, once Durant had ripped off a 5-0 burst to put the Nets in front 83-80 with less than 90 seconds to play, Middleton delivered again. Shedding Joe Harris with a quick rip through, Middleton shuffled all the way to the rim for a layup that was goaltended and cut the deficit to 83-82.
“For the most part it was shots that I got in Games 1 and 2 in Brooklyn,” Middleton said. It was just a matter of staying with it, taking some of the same shots and having the confidence to knock them down.”
Later, after Jrue Holiday had put the Bucks in front, and they were clinging to a one-point lead, Middleton stepped to the line for two massive free throws. Perhaps it’s easy to say now, well after the fact, but there was really never any doubt — not from him, not from anyone in the building — that they were going in. And they did, to put the Bucks up by three.
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All told, Middleton scored eight of the Bucks’ last 10 points over the final two minutes and forty seconds of the fourth quarter. But maybe even more telling was that he took five of their seven field goal attempts during that stretch.
Even with a two-time MVP standing right beside him, even after he went a combined 13-of-39 in Games 1 and 2 of this series, this is who the Bucks trust to take them home. When the game is on the line, it’s Middleton time. The team believes in him, and more importantly, he believes in himself.
“I feel like I can score in a lot of different ways,” Middleton said. “Those are the shots they want me to take. I’m confident. I think I’m good enough. I worked on those shots a lot to knock them down, and they went down for me tonight.”